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Plants may be the secret to unlocking large scale, affordable energy for humanity

Green energy

(NaturalNews) A new era of renewable energy and energy storage is upon us. Scientists from Harvard University have discovered how to create an entirely new class of non-toxic, high-capacity flow batteries to store electricity from solar and wind power.

Inspired by vitamin B2 (or riboflavin), the Harvard researchers identified a new class of organic molecules found in a variety of plants that can safely store electricity from intermittent energy sources. This new cutting-edge technology is based on earlier work in which they developed a high-capacity flow battery that stores energy in organic molecules called quinones and a food additive called ferrocyanide.

While these quinone-based batteries showed great results, the Harvard scientists continued to explore other organic molecules to improve material and performance.

Kaixiang Lin, a Ph.D. student at Harvard and first author of the paper, said that after looking at a great number of different quinones, they finally found a new class of battery electrolyte material that expands the possibilities of what they can do. They are easily synthesized, which means that they could be manufactured on a large scale and at a very low cost – two crucial factors to making the project a success.

Cheap, safe and biodegradable energy storage

In 2014, the scientists were able to replace toxic metal ions used as conventional battery electrolytes in an acidic solution with quinones. Quinones are molecules that store energy in a wide variety of plants. In 2015, they updated the system and found one particular quinone that was able to store energy in an alkaline solution alongside a common food additive, ferrocyanide.

In their most recent research, published in Nature Energy, they modified the vitamin B2 molecule, which is used by the human body to store energy from the food we eat.

"We designed these molecules to suit the needs of our battery, but really it was nature that hinted at this way to store energy," said Gordon, co-senior author of the paper. "Nature came up with similar molecules that are very important in storing energy in our bodies."

As reported by Michael J. Aziz, the Gene and Tracy Sykes Professor of Materials and Energy Technologies at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, a couple of tweaks to the original B2 molecule enabled the team to make a new group of molecules suitable for alkaline flow batteries. These batteries have a high stability and solubility, while providing high battery voltage and storage capacity.

He further noted that vitamins are relatively easy to produce, which will make it feasible to manufacture the batteries on a large scale and at a very low cost. Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, Professor Aziz said that this new technology has the potential to bring the energy storage cost down to $100 per kWh, which is about half of the current storage cost.

And because the battery's key components (water and non-toxic organic chemicals) are biodegradable, this new technology is environmentally friendly and doesn't form any potential hazard in the case of an accident or when the battery needs to be decommissioned or recycled.

While the team is still struggling with the "calendar life" of the chemicals used in the storage tanks, the design has proven its effectiveness. Next year, the first European field tests will be conducted by utility companies partnering with Italy's Green Energy Storage, the holder of the European license for Harvard's organic flow battery.

In the meantime, the team will continue its groundbreaking research to further explore the possibilities of quinones, as well as a new universe of other energy storing molecules, in pursuit of a high-performing, long-lasting and inexpensive flow battery.

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